01.13.08

No Lefties in China?

Posted in Culture Clash at 10:30 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past December, I was invited to a Chinese Christmas party in Chinatown.  During the party, I was conversing with a middle-aged gentleman who had lived in the US for ten years.  When the conversation turned to culture shock I asked him what he thought was the strangest thing he saw when he first came to the US.

“Left handed people,” he replied without any hesitation.

“You don’t have left-handed people in China?” I inquired making sure I hadn’t mistranslated his words.

“Nope, I had never seen anybody write with their left hand until I came to the U.S.” he said.

“How is that possible?” I asked, “Isn’t that genetic?”

“Maybe so, but in China kids are all taught to write with their right hands.  If they pick up a pencil with their left hand, the teacher will put it in their right.  It’s really just a matter of practicality.  In the US, you have left-handed desks, left handed guitars, and all sorts of other left handed devices, but in China we have none of the sort.  It works out better that way I think, no need to manufacture 2 different kinds of something when only one is necessary.”

As he brought this up I vaguely remember my grandmother telling me how when she was a little girl she had picked up objects with her left hand, and her mother would always put it in her right, so much so that she eventually became completely right-handed.  This practice however seems to have fallen mostly out of practice in the US.  Since I’m no longer in China I can’t really check whether or not this man’s story checks out, but I do not recall ever personally encountering any southpaws in the land of the Middle Kingdom.  Can anybody out their either confirm or deny the existence of left-handed Chinese?

35 Comments »

  1. Matthew Stinson Germany said,

    January 13, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    I think being left-handed is neurophysical and you can only be taught to be semi-ambidextrous, you can never really taught to be right-handed. Among my students I’ve had many left-handed Chinese, and like the man says, they were all forced to use their right hand for all activities. Strangely, most of these students were underachievers in their classes, as opposed to American lefties, who are statistical overachievers. In light of this, I’d like to see a study that looks at whether forcing lefties to “think right” has an adverse effect on their academic performance, or whether there’s no effect at all.

    On a related note: was the man by any chance taken aback by the fact that we have facilities for the handicapped as well? Those are so few and far between in China. I can imagine a Chinese going to the States and saying, “Wow, a wheelchair ramp!”

  2. Liuzhou Laowai said,

    January 13, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    I have been teaching in Universities in China for the past 12 years. Literally thousands of students. Only one has been left handed.

    This compares with an almost exact 10% of students when I was teaching in London.

    I’m sure that the genetic ratio is probably the same but children are forced to use their right hands – as they were in the UK (and the USA, I guess) not that long ago.

    For another angle on left handed Chinese problems see http://www.liuzhou.co.uk/china/food.htm#banquet

  3. Xiao Chuan Australia said,

    January 14, 2008 at 12:19 am

    Most left-handed Chinese are ex-pats. The eating thing is very true though, especially when consuming with great gusto, as is often the case. Even the left-handed Chinese I know have learned to eat with their right hand.

  4. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    January 14, 2008 at 12:32 am

    @Matthew

    the man didn’t mention anything in regards to accessibility for the disabled, but I do think China is going along the same path we did in the US. I worked on a research project targeting disabilities in China last year, and we actually found that while the situation is not great, it is rapidly improving, especially in larger cities. Growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City, I erroneously assumed that the US had always been handicapped accessible. However, now that I live in a section of Chicago which is over 100 years old, I am realizing more and more that at one point in history, not too long ago, the US was as unaccessible as China is today.

  5. Lisa United States said,

    January 14, 2008 at 2:21 am

    Ha! My DH will be delighted to read your post.
    http://snippetsandsagas.blogspot.com/2007/11/put-your-left-hand-in.html

  6. Glen China said,

    January 14, 2008 at 3:30 am

    I am an American expat in China who happens to be left-handed. People always express surprise that I’m left-handed. However, they all tell me that left-handed people “are very clever.” I would HAVE to agree. Ha ha.

  7. Jeremiah China said,

    January 14, 2008 at 4:18 am

    One place you find lefties is on the basketball court. Though even that can be deceiving. I write/eat with my left hand but throw right handed. But I’ve seen a fair number of players here who use their left hand when playing ball.

    I also get a little tired of the “you’re left handed, you must be clever” bit of folk wisdom.

    Finally, I seem to recall that the US stopped forcing lefties to go right when it was determined that doing so played in a role in the development of learning disabilities and some other negative side effects. Anyone else know more about this?

  8. Rene United States said,

    January 14, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I’ve seen plenty of Chinese use their left hand for eating with chopsticks. In my experience, the amazed reaction only happens with respect to writing. In the case of the person Ben quoted, the speaker implied that his definition of left-handed is based entirely on writing.

  9. edjusted United States said,

    January 14, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    The tricky thing is, Chinese kids are often (usually?) “encouraged” (and sometimes even beaten) into becoming right-handed. Being left-handed is an “abnormal” thing.

  10. T. China said,

    January 14, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    As a lefthanded Chinese Americans who has been living in China/Hong Kong for 7 of the last 11 years, I think I’m uniquely qualified to talk about this.

    1. I don’t think the population of left handers in China is any smaller than the population of lefties in the US, BUT as mentioned above, most Chinese here are converted, mainly for 2 reasons. 1 – people do NOT believe you can write Chinese characters left handed. Really. I’ve been stared at in the bank and asked “How can you write that with your left hand?” – in deeper conversations – the concept that the Chinese character can be written left handed is confusing. But I’m seeing a lot more lefties here in 2007 Shanghai than I ever did in 1996 Guangdong. So I think the forced switching is SLOWLY being phased out. At least in the city.

    2. I can still attract a full room of onloookers to watch me eat when I’m out in the countryside. I can also DOMINATE basketball players who far superior to me by consistently going left – its like brains don’t accept the idea I’m heading left.

    3. I see lots of left handers on the basketball courts in the cities though.

    4. I think I’ve been told I must be clever, oh, about 14 million times. But I’ve been told my style of writing is “cute” once. I’m trying to get the idea that “lefthanders are cute” into the Chinese code of ideas, but it’s been unsuccessful.

  11. xge Germany said,

    January 14, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    A lot of my coworkers(in China) are now forcing themselves to use their left hand by setting the mouse to left-hand mode because they belive this trains the brain and makes them smarter. It is actually very anoying when I am asked to help them with a problem and has to use their computers.

  12. sabrina China said,

    January 14, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    hi,Ben, wow~~~u would never know how excited the moment i found ur blog here,i’m an english major student in Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University,Fujian,China. remember when u were used to be my extensive reading teacher together with LinYe..
    well,i just stop by and say hi to u ,wish u all the best!!!
    PS,we all miss u very much!!!!

  13. passer-by Lithuania said,

    January 15, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    “…in China kids are all taught to write with their right hands. If they pick up a pencil with their left hand, the teacher will put it in their right.”

    Actually, that was the common practice in the Soviet Union as well. You wouldn’t be able to find that many people who write with their left hand as you would in the so-called Western Europe, cos they were brought up being told they should use their right hands.

  14. Charles Frith China said,

    January 15, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Ironic given that socialism lies intellectually to the left.

  15. maldives China said,

    January 15, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    I’m an American in Shanghai- working in an office of 20 people, only 2 non Chinese, myself and another. Like the other comments, my colleagues said that
    –no writing on left hand– in school they will make you do it on your right hand.

    –eating chopsticks and holding a knife with left hand is seen

    –left hand people are seen as clever

  16. Matt Schiavenza United States said,

    January 17, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Oddly- four out of the last six US Presidents have been left-handed….and Obama is left-handed. Maybe there’s something to the over-achiever reputation.

  17. Nicki China said,

    January 18, 2008 at 4:36 am

    My Dad, who’s 58 and grew up in upstate New York, is a lefty who was forced by his teachers (with ruler whacks!) to write right handed. He still does write right handed, but nobody can read it, except my mother, who’s had over 30 years’ practice. He does everything else left handed. So it really wasn’t that long ago at all that the US was forcing kids to switch hands in just the same way…perhaps less than a generation from now that will be unthinkable in China, too.

  18. China Law Blog United States said,

    January 18, 2008 at 9:14 am

    My father was born left-handed here in the US and essentially forced to convert to his right, and essentially became ambidexterous. Jeremiah and others on the basketball front — don’t you know all decent players can go both left and right?

  19. Jeff Cho United States said,

    January 18, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Re: Lefty ballers

    I’ve always been curious about the left hander’s advantage on the hardwood/blacktop. From a purely mechanistic perspective it makes sense on the defensive end, since a left hander has a easier time challenging a right hander’s shot (i.e. defender’s left is lined up with a shooter’s right), but on offense wouldn’t that be a handicap for the leftys? It really must boil down to mental and habits. I find that I’m much quicker shuffling to my left (defending driving right) than to my right.

    Here’s a real puzzle: has anyone noticed that while Yi Jianlian has no left hand to speak of (neither does Yao Ming, methinks), he always pivots with his right foot while in triple threat?

  20. terry China said,

    January 22, 2008 at 3:49 am

    My Singaporean wife is left handed and actually does calligraphy and Chinese painting that way as well as eating etc. In Taiwan in the 70’s left handers were considered rebels and potential “Liu Mang”.

    One last note… chopsticks and round tables.. good reason for everyone to be using the same hand…. wife and i are always bumping elbows if seated the wrong way.

  21. harrison United States said,

    January 23, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Ben,

    I will always remember that day four years ago in Mianyang when I had students writing something for me, as I had done many times without really paying attention to how they were writing. For some reason I started to look down a row of students. I was amazed that each student was writing with their right hand. I quickly looked around the room and realized everyone was writing with their right hand. This was very strange to me being a lefty. None of my students could give me a reason as to why everyone was right handed. They said the teachers made them be and being between the ages of 13-16 they could not remember writing with anything but their right hands. During my time in China I have been stared at in resturants when using chopsticks with my left hand and even had a drunk Chinese man want to teach me how to eat with my right hand. Plus my students in Beijing questioned me at lunch one day, as to why I wrote and used chopsticks left-handed. All I could reply was that was how I was born and parents in the US dont make their children be right-handed. Never did get a clear cut answer as to the reason while in China as to why.

  22. Jeremiah China said,

    January 24, 2008 at 12:41 am

    @ CLB,

    I don’t know the moves of the decent players (players good enough to go left and right) because those players usually blow right by me and I don’t have time to check out their moves, to the left or right.

  23. Eric United States said,

    January 26, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    This topic is very close to my heart.

    I am a left-handed man who attended a Montessori school in Southern California where no one gave a second though given to my left-handedness. My family moved to Beijing in 1980 at the age of five, and my parents placed me in a Chinese public school.

    As the only blond-headed boy in a sea of Chinese kids, I enjoyed some autonomy, but very soon, the teachers started to force me to write with my write hand. Class discipline involved rulers, although I can’t remember with 100% certainty whether I was ever hit specifically for writing with my left hand. Obviously, as a foreigner, I enjoyed an aura of protection. However, my handedness became a big enough issue that my mother marched to class with me one day to have very strong words with my teachers. They stopped trying to convert me and I remained left-handed.

  24. Minivet United States said,

    February 1, 2008 at 9:47 am

    I’m told my (American) left-handed grandmother was allowed to be left-handed, but she wouldn’t have been if she were a year older, because that’s when her school made the change.

  25. Gabrielle United States said,

    February 8, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    When I was in China, everyone was always super surprised to see my friend, Phil, use his left hand to eat and write. We asked them why it was so amazing to them, and that is when they told us that everyone one is taught to write with their right hand in school. Someone told me that it had something to do with smearing characters if they wrote with their left hand. I don’t know if that is true or not. It sorta makes sense even if it isn’t true.

    And like Glen said, we too were told countless times that people who were left handed were very clever.

  26. Matthew China said,

    February 11, 2008 at 3:57 am

    A colleague used to claim that left-handedness is associated with a high statistical deviation, not over-achievement as such. So plenty of US Presidents may be left-handed, but it’s probable that plenty of street-cleaners are too.

    No-one has so far mentioned the speech problems associated with forced conversion to right-hand writinged. It seems to confuse language areas of the brain. The categorical example is the UK is often the late King George VI, who suffered a lifelong speech impediment, obviously a major disadvantage in his role, because he was forced to use his right hand as a child.

    I only have anecdotal evidence for both of these points, and they may be urban myths. There’s a link below to an article on the speech issue, but it’s not a very reliable source (I couldn’t find it on the actual National Post website).
    http://www.bridges4kids.org/articles/8-03/CanadianNatlPost8-12-03.html

  27. Todd China said,

    February 24, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Weird, my mother forced my sister and I to be right-handed. Although, nearly everthing she did not teach us we invariably do left handed. For instance, I shoot a gun, play pool, and throw a frisbee left handed. This explains all the left-handed ballers out there who are eating and writing with their right hands. I’m 34 so don’t fool yourselves into thinking the supression of the evil left-handed curse is not still very much alive and kicking.

    On a side note, if you see a someone struggling between right and lefthanded activities check the cowlick on the top of his/her head. If it runs counterclockwise the chances that he/she is a southpaw are greater than 50%.

  28. leben China said,

    March 9, 2008 at 6:22 am

    One of my neighborhood ,he’s my best friend , is both-handed , I don’t think that is strange , actully I think being left-handed have advantage . They use the right brain . They can do better than the right handed .

  29. FOARP United Kingdom said,

    April 2, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    As a kid on special needs, I often underwent physical examinations to see if there wasn’t some simple explanation for my rubbish hand writing. The first thing they would check was whether I was left handed or not, they would do this by getting me to squeeze something with both of my hands and try to feel the relative strength of each. The implication is obvious, handedness is natural and any attempt to turn it around leads to your child experiencing a disadvantage in school. There are Chinese lefties, it’s just that they write with their right hands.

  30. heidi United States said,

    July 25, 2008 at 2:33 am

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Chinese parents made an effort to convert their left-handed children, even outside of China. I was born in the U.S., and my brother tells me how I used to draw with my left hand, and how my mom would slap my hand when I did. I eventually learned to stick with my right, and now I’m completely right-handed.

  31. joey United States said,

    July 31, 2008 at 5:39 am

    It has to do with Chiarman Mao. During the time he ruled it was required that everyone be right handed, required to learn that way rather than left. Being left handed was a sign of antl-conmunlsm.

  32. shane China said,

    August 15, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    people with left handedness CAN be converted into right handedness and vice versa, as long as it is done early when the brain is still plastic enough and the child is still training to use their hands.

    it is very acceptble in China to hit a child’s left hand if the child uses her left hand, such physical pain and condition is more effectively at forcing the child to develop right handedness, which subsequently influences the brain’s neuro structure.

    since left handedness is being converted less often, the statistics indicate that left handedness is becoming more and more common.

  33. Serbian Ambidextrous Dude Serbia said,

    September 24, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    I think that the Chinese snooker player Liang can be regarded as compelling evidence of the chinese repression of the left hand.
    He plays using his left hand (I don’t think I’ve ever seen him take ONE shot with his right). However, when he signed an autograph, he used his right.

    Even here, in Serbia, at an early age I was forced to write with my right hand. I don’t even remember it. But when I took up pool, I found that I could use my left hand to a very high degree. I was 20 at the time. I mentioned this to my dad, and he said ”Oh, yeah, we thought that you would be a lefty…”. Just like that…
    I tried to write with my left hand, and after very little practice, I brought it up to the same level of dexterity as my right.
    People shouldn’t try to play god with children’s genetics.

  34. Richard T Dobrowolski United States said,

    June 3, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Is right handedness then of western influance???? Was left handedness more prevalent in ancient China???? pleas e-mail me at tinley554@yahoo.com Richard

  35. Timothy Canada said,

    January 30, 2015 at 5:37 am

    I think it’s easier for the handedness of Chinese kids to be changed if somebody invents a wire frame glove for the left hand that can be locked shut and opened by a parent and each parent that notices their 2 year old kid picking up a crayon with their left hand buys such a glove and decides from then on they will restrain that kid’s left hand each time they’re going to be given a coloring book and a crayon to color with. That way the kid will not struggle with keeping on picking up the crayon with their left hand and having it snatched away and placed in tehir right hand or have the slow down their right hand gaining skill by using their left hand when other people aren’t looking.

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